- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Rebel forces fended off Moammar Gadhafi’s troops in the western part of Libya on Tuesday, and thousands of people fleeing the violence massed at the North African nation’s borders prompting warnings from international aid groups of a humanitarian crisis.

In Washington, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates said two amphibious assault ships will arrive shortly in the Mediterranean and 400 Marines are being sent to assist in evacuation and humanitarian operations if needed.

“We are looking at a lot of options and contingencies. No decisions have been made on any other actions,” he said.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told members of Congress that the Obama administration will look into allegations that Col. Gaddafi ordered the 1988 Lockerbie bombing.

“We will follow up on that,” she told the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Former Libyan Justice Minister Mustafa Mohamed Abud al Jeleil, who has broken with Col. Gaddafi, was quoted on Feb. 23 as saying Col. Gaddafi personally ordered the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 that killed 270 people when the plane exploded over the Scottish town of Lockerbie.

Mrs. Clinton also said U.S. Agency for International Development is dispatching two humanitarian teams to help the refugees.

She said the flow of refugees into Tunisia and Egypt is imposing “tremendous burdens” on those two countries.

Meanwhile, the U.N. General Assembly suspended Libya from the U.N. Human Rights Council citing Col. Gadhafi’s crackdown on protesters.

As many as 15,000 people were waiting to cross into Tunisia. On Libya’s east, more than 77,000 people have crossed into Egypt since Feb. 19, according to a spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency.

Most of those who have left are Egyptians and Tunisians. Very few sub-Saharan Africans have been allowed out of Libya, according to sources at the border.

Sybella Wilkes, a Geneva-based spokeswoman for U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said self-appointed border guards are preventing black Africans primarily from leaving. These civilians are bearing the brunt of some Libyans’ anger toward pro-Gadhafi African mercenaries blamed for many of the assaults on civilians.

“We are hearing anguished calls from refugees who are saying they are too scared to go out. They are feeling hunted. They are feeling trapped,” Ms. Wilkes told The Washington Times in a phone interview. “This is a very dangerous time to be a black African in Libya.”

Ayman Gharaibeh, head of the UNHCR emergency response team at the Libya-Tunisia border, said he could see “acres of people waiting to cross the border.”

“Many have been waiting for three to four days in the freezing cold, with no shelter or food,” Mr. Gharaibeh said, adding, “Usually the first three days of the crisis are the worst. This seems to be getting worse by the day.”

Tunisia and Egypt recently experienced revolutions that toppled long-standing governments.

“They are both making tremendous efforts, but it is clear that they need massive support,” said Ms. Wilkes. “We need to see lots of transport options. We need to unblock this bottleneck.”

Meanwhile, fighting was reported from rebel-controlled cities.

In phone interviews with The Times, residents reported fighting in Zintan, Ajdabiya, Az Zawiya and Misurata.

In Misurata, 130 miles east of Tripoli, residents said anti-government forces had shot down an aircraft belonging to the Libyan military.

In the eastern city of Benghazi, residents had plans to burn copies of “The Green Book” in which Col. Gadhafi spells out his political philosophy, including that “representation is a falsification of democracy.”

Residents in Libya´s eastern cities reported a festive atmosphere on the streets. People were handing out sandwiches, sweets and refreshments to passers-by.

“But we are also a little nervous for our brothers and sisters in Tripoli,” said Ahmed, a Benghazi resident who only gave his first name.

“All of our focus is on what happens in Tripoli. Whichever way Tripoli falls will be a big, big factor,” he added.

In Tripoli, residents described an uneasy calm in the capital. Others reported hearing gunshots in some neighborhoods.

Anti-government forces in Benghazi have been planning to send an armed force to help the residents of Tripoli shake off the regime. Their plans have, however, been hampered by the challenge posed by Surt, Col. Gadhafi´s tribal stronghold that falls between Benghazi and Tripoli.
Outside the courthouse in Benghazi, a recruitment office has opened for people volunteering to fight Col. Gadhafi´s forces in Tripoli.

“There are long lines outside the recruitment office,” said Ahmed, adding, “But a full offensive from Benghazi is still in the making.”

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